01/03/2013 06:10 EST | Updated 12/31/2014 07:59 EST

How Your New Year's Resolutions Can Make Your City Better

2013-01-03-P1240627.JPG New Year's Eve in Seattle (Brent Toderian)

At this time of year, most of us are thinking hard about New Year's resolutions to make our personal, family and professional lives better. But before we finalize and laminate the list of losing weight, balancing our household finances, or cleaning out that back closet, what if we picked a few that could improve our lives, while ALSO improving our cities, towns and communities?

It's not as hard as you might think ; we just need to see the opportunities. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1. Resolve to get around differently.

What if we chose, either all the time or just more frequently, to try new ways of moving around our city? If you're already committed to losing weight, improving your mood, dealing with stress better, lowering your household expenses, and improving your quality of life, the beauty of walking, biking and taking transit is that they help kill all these birds with one stone.

Just a few more trips each week by foot, pedal or transit can be cheaper, healthier, happier and greener for you, and for the whole city.

If "active mobility" choices aren't practical just yet, how about getting a Zip Car or car-share membership? The growth of such programs has been incredible — plus each car-share car replaces 20 cars that would otherwise take up considerable space in the city for driving and parking.

If you're really ambitious this year, a life-changing resolution might involve rethinking where you live relative to where you work. Consider even working occasionally from home. Although we tend to change our jobs more often than our homes, much of our quality of life, household finances, and carbon footprint is tied to distance, traffic and travel time between work and home. Closing that distance makes our lives, and our cities, better.

2013-01-03-BikeWedding.jpg Healthy ways of getting around, make our city better. (Brent Toderian)

2. Resolve to know & love your 'hood.

How well do you know your neighbourhood? Your neighbours? This year why not resolve to get to know both better? How about using every opportunity in the design of your community to help with that?

If you have a porch or walkable streets where you can meet neighbours, spend more time on them. If you have a community centre, visit it more often. If you live in a high-rise home, get to know the people on your floor, and be friendly in the fitness rooms or common areas.

The greatest asset a city provides is proximity — to different people, with different perspectives, talents and things to teach. Taking every advantage of that proximity is one of the best things citizens can do for themselves and their city.

Loving your neighbourhood though also means getting involved in making it better — and not just when you oppose something. It's all too common for citizens to get active in community affairs only when something is upsetting or worrisome. It's also common for discussions to be dominated by individuals who aren't necessarily reflective of the diversity and demographic mix of the community.

If you were to speak your mind, what kind of positive change would you champion? Think about going to City Hall and voicing your support for a proposal — that can be hard when some of your neighbours might be opposing, but you can make a huge difference in your community by speaking up.

3. Resolve to shop and eat local more often.

Do you support local stores, restaurants and services, or just national/international chains? Chains can contribute to streets and cities, but it's true that spending in local businesses has a significantly greater multiplier effect for the local economy. They also better reflect and strengthen local character and identity. But they need your financial support, because city planning systems can't protect them if you're spending your money elsewhere.

And how about local food? Supporting your local farmers markets, and restaurants or food carts that feature locally grown and produced food, provides community, economic and environmental benefits for your neighbours. So why not do it more often? As Peter Ladner suggested to me today, "Resolve to know the name of one person who grew one thing you eat every day."

farmers market

4. Resolve to support your public spaces and "third places."

Choosing to spend more time in parks, plazas and along walking streets, gives life and vitality to those places, and makes them more magnetic to others. Never forget that the most important public spaces in your city are the streets themselves!

It's often said that what attracts people most is other people. When you spend time on patios, strolling or sitting, you're adding to the street theatre and the public life of your city. Not just during special public gatherings, such as Canada Day or a car-free festival, but every day. Your very presence makes the city better, more successful and more attractive for everyone, and you're having fun at the same time.

Along with public spaces, your neighbourhood is full of commercial or civic places where social life lives, other than work and home — the so-called "third places." These can be your local pub, coffee shop, community centre, or library branch — meeting places and "talkscapes" for the local community. Supporting them makes your community stronger, while adding to your social life.

2013-01-03-CBCPlaza.jpg Small plazas like CBC Vancouver are magnets for people. (Brent Toderian)

5. Resolve to demand better for your city's future.

For many cities, one of the biggest challenges is a kind of inferiority complex among its citizens and leaders. These cities believe they should "take what they can get" when it comes to city-building, in the form of substandard development and design, costly suburban sprawl, and "free money" for freeways and other counter-productive ideas. Often the fear is that the money or investment will go elsewhere if they say no.

In contrast, cities that have citizens and leaders that expect more, recognize that money for the wrong things costs too much, and know that their city deserves better, generally get much better city-making.

It starts with confidence, with a strong, clear belief in a smart future for your city, and knowing that if you expect better, you'll get better. That confidence comes from every citizen. It comes from you, and you can resolve to have it, and share it.

Adding any of these resolutions to your list for 2013 could make your life more healthy, affordable and enjoyable. You'll also have the knowledge that you're making your city better too. A great way to start a Happy New Year!

Commonly Broken New Year's Resolutions